Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov, Vladimir - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Vladimir Nabokov 1899–-1977

(Full name Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov; also wrote under the pseudonym V. Sirin) Russian-born American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, translator, biographer, autobiographer, and scriptwriter. See also Vladimir Nabokov Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 11.

Nabokov is widely recognized as one of the outstanding literary stylists of the twentieth century. His intricate, self-conscious fiction often investigates the illusory nature of reality and the artist's relationship to his craft. Nabokov maintained that “art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex”; by emphasizing stylistic considerations above notions of moral or social significance, he championed the primacy of the imagination, through which he believed a more meaningful reality might be perceived. Viewing words as significant objects as well as vehicles for meaning, Nabokov made use of intellectual games involving wordplay, acrostics, anagrams, and multilingual puns to create complex narratives. Although some critics have faulted Nabokov for his refusal to address social and political issues, many have maintained that beneath his passion for “composing riddles with elegant solutions,” as he himself once stated, Nabokov's fiction conveys a poignant regard for human feelings and morality.

Biographical Information

Nabokov was born into an old, aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, one of the founders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, instilled in the Nabokov children the importance of education and liberal thinking. Doted on by his parents, and bequeathed a huge fortune in his teen years by a devoted uncle, Nabokov enjoyed a childhood of love and privilege, during which his intellectual, linguistic, and emotional sensitivities were cultivated, first in his home by his parents and tutors, and then at a progressively liberal, aggressively democratic school. The Russian Revolution of 1917, however, stripped him of his fortune and his homeland when the Nabokovs were forced to flee the country, ultimately settling in London. Nabokov began studying Russian and French literature at Cambridge University on a scholorship awarded for “political tribulation.” After graduating in 1922, Nabokov traveled to Berlin to work with his father on a Russian refugee newspaper. That year his father was killed in a politcal rally of Russian exiles while trying to shield the lecturer from right-wing assassins. The murder deeply affected Nabokov, and elements of the experience would recur throughout his writing. He remained in Berlin for several years, marrying Vera Slonim in 1925 and writing poetry, fiction, and translations to earn a living. His wife's Jewish ancestry necessitated their relocation to France in 1937 and to the United States in 1940 to escape Nazi persecution. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945. In 1948, Nabokov accepted a post at Cornell University as a professor of Russian literature. During his tenure there, he wrote Lolita (1955), the work that brought him notoriety and popular success as a novelist and allowed him to concentrate soley on his writing career until his death in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977.

Major Works

Nabokov's novels written in Russian, many of them under the pseudonym V. Sirin, are generally regarded as more autobiographical and less significant than his works in English. In these novels, Nabokov focused on alienated and compulsive protagonists whose complex aesthetic imaginations and quests for self-knowledge render them social misfits. The chessmaster in Zashchita Luzhina (1930; The Defense), for example, strives to discover his indentity through chess but loses interest in his wife and family as the game becomes an obsession. After removing himself from society and losing his sanity, Luzhin commits suicide; his last glimpse of the world reveals an enormous chessboard on which he must play an endless game. Priglashenie na kazn' (1938; Invitation to a Beheading), a novel which prompted critical comparisons to Franz Kafka for its dreamlike plot, setting, and characters, relates the final days of a rebellious young man sentenced to death for the capital crime of “gnostical turpitude.” Many critics view this work as an allegory describing the artist's determination to remain free from collective social pressures. Nabokov's last novel in Russian, Dar (1937–38; The Gift), is usually considered his greatest work in his native language. Through five distinct stories which bear no integral relationship to one another, the novel brings its concerns together in the manner of a mosaic composed of strongly contrasting individual sections.

In Nabokov's first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), the narrator writes a biography of his recently deceased brother, novelist Sebastian Knight, in an attempt to reveal his true character. The narrator's efforts crumble, however, amid a confusion of identities, as he mistakenly pursues a man whom he believes to be his brother. Nabokov became a celebrity with his notorious novel Lolita. Rejected by four American publishers due to its pedophiliac subject matter, the book attracted large underground readership upon its publication in France and became a bestseller when published in the United States in 1958. The plot revolves around the disastrous passion of Humbert Humbert, a brilliant, middle-aged European professor, for Delores Haze, a promiscuous twelve-year-old schoolgirl whom he pursues to compensate for the loss of a love during his adolescence. Pnin (1957), one of Nabokov's most complex yet accessible works, centers on the bumbling attempts of an exiled Russian scholar to adapt to life at an American university. Nabokov's next novel, Pale Fire (1962), consists of a playful, parodistic exegesis of a complex 999-line poem about death, immortality, and art written in rhymed couplets and attributed to John Shade, whom Nabokov called “the greatest of invented poets.” The novel also includes a critical foreward, commentary, and index attributed to the pseudonymous Charles Kinbote, whom Nabokov identified as an unbalanced American scholar. In addition to his novels, Nabokov is also noted for his critical observations and scholarly pursuits. Several volumes of essays and memoirs have been published posthumously, including Lectures on Literature (1980), Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), and Speak, Memory (1983).

Critical Reception

From the beginning of his career, Nabokov has been regarded as a major novelist. Upon his arrival in the United States, he was championed by the preeminent American literary critic, Edmund Wilson, who introduced him to Katherine S. White, a senior fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine, where he published verse, autobiography, and fiction for many years. He enjoyed a close friendship with Wilson, too, for nearly twenty years until a rancorous ending when Wilson attacked Nabokov as well as his monumentally annotated translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1964) in The New York Review of Books. Nabokov's adherence in his fiction to Russian formalism, emphasizing the self-reflexivity of language over its capacity to represent reality resulted in both praise for his aesthetic pyrotechnics and censure for his apparent lack of social consciousness or concern for moral issues. Even in 1997, Nabokov could still be the center of scandal as when Norman Podhoretz, the conservative critic, writing in Commentary, linked Nabokov's name with the Marquis de Sade and Larry Flint, editor of the pornographic magazine Hustler, and suggested that Lolita might be considered partially responsible for fostering a climate in which pedophilia could be deemed acceptable, a contention Colin McGinn refuted later that year in the London Times Literary Supplement.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gorniy Put' [The Heavenly Path] (poetry) 1923

Grozd [The Grape] (poetry) 1923

Mashen'ka [Mary 1970] (novel) 1926

Korol', dama, valet [King, Queen, Knave 1968] (novel) 1928

Vozurashchenie Chorba [The Return of Chorb] (short story) 1930

Zashchita Luzhina [The Defense 1964] (novel) 1930

Kamera obskura [Camera Obscura 1936; Laughter in the Dark 1938] (novel) 1932

Podvig [Glory 1971] (novel) 1932

Otchayanie [Despair 1937] (novel) 1934

Dar [The Gift 1963] (novel) 1937-38

Izobretenie Val'sa [The Waltz Invention] (play) 1938

Priglashenie na kazn' [Invitation to a Beheading 1959] (novel) 1938

Soglyadatay [The Eye1965] (novel) 1938

Volshebnik [The Enchanter 1986] (novel) 1939

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (novel) 1941

Nikolai Gogol (criticism) 1944

Bend Sinister (novel) 1947

Nine Stories (short story) 1947

Conclusive Evidence [Drugie berega 1954] (autobiography) 1951

Stikhotvoreniya [Poems 1920-1951] (poetry) 1952

Lolita [Lolita] (novel) 1955

Vesna v Fial'te, I Drugie Rasskazy [Spring in Fialta and Other Stories] (short story) 1956

Pnin (novel) 1957

Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories (short story) 1958

Poems (poetry) 1959

Eugene Onegin (translation) 1964

Pale Fire (novel) 1962

Nabokov's Quartet (short story) 1966

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (novel) 1969

Poems and Problems (poetry) 1970

Transparent Things (novel) 1972

A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (short story) 1973

Strong Opinions (essays) 1973

Lolita: A Screenplay (play) 1974

Look at the Harlequins! (novel) 1974

The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971 (nonfiction) 1974

Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (short story) 1975

Poems (poetry) 1979

Lectures on Literature (nonfiction) 1980

Lectures on Russian Literature (nonfiction) 1980

Speak, Memory (autobiography) 1983

The Man from the USSR and Other Plays (play) 1984

David L. Jones (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dolorès Disparue,” in Symposium, Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 135-40.

[In the following essay, Jones examines the parallels between Lolita in Nabokov's novel and Albertine in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.]

“The Poor Woman”—Charlotte Haze, mother of Dolores Haze, alias Lolita, chosen nymphet of the gay madman Humbert Humbert—

busied herself with a number of things she had foregone long before or had never been much interested in, as if (to prolong these Proustian intonations) by my marrying the mother of the child I loved I had enabled my wife to regain an abundance of youth by...

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Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Illusion, Reality, and Parody in Nabokov's Plays,” in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1967, pp. 268-79.

[In the following essay, Karlinsky examines the sources of two of Nabokov's plays and their similarities to his novels.]

It was Vladislav Khodasevich who in 1937 characterized Nabokov as a writer obsessed with a single theme.1 Nabokov's writings of the subsequent decades have confirmed the accuracy of this observation. Nabokov's central theme is, of course, the nature of the creative imagination and the solitary, freak-like role into which a man gifted with such imagination is inevitably cast in any society....

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Vladimir Nabokov with Robert Robinson (interview date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Last Interview,” in Vladimir Nabokov, His Life, His Work, His World: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quennell, 1977. Reprint by William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980, pp. 119-25.

[The following is a British Broadcasting Company transcript of Nabokov's last interview in 1977.]

We arrived in February. Wintry laurels and the bare willow trees made the path at the side of the lake seem melancholy, and there was a curious feeling of taking a walk in an old photograph. We were calling on Nabokov to let him know we were there, and also to tell him he'd given us rather short measure. The Nabokov interview (on this occasion for The Book Programme on Bbc2) is...

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Martin Amis (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sublime and the Ridiculous: Nabokov's Black Farces,” in Vladimir Nabokov, His Life, His Work, His World: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quennell, 1979. Reprint by William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980, pp. 73-87.

[In the following essay, Amis argues that the three “black farces,” King, Queen, Knave; Laughter in the Dark; and Despair are precursors to Lolita.]

There are several ways in which Nabokov's art still needs to be celebrated. His reputation is considerable, but it is the wrong kind of reputation; his admirers are many, but they are the wrong kind of admirers. Two years after his death Nabokov is still best known as the embodiment...

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Ellen Pifer (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Singularity and the Double's Pale Ghost: From Despair to Pale Fire,” in Nabokov and the Novel, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 97-118.

[In the following essay, Pifer argues that characters who appear to be doubles of each other in Nabokov's fictions actually are not.]

Despite Nabokov's consistent emphasis on the individual nature of reality and his obvious hostility to the notion of duality, his novels have given rise to innumerable speculations concerning the Doppelgänger motif.1 To mention only a partial list of the many suggested doubles in Nabokov's fiction, there are Hermann and Felix in Despair, Albinus and...

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Ellen Pifer (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On the Dark Side of Aesthetic Bliss: Nabokov's Humanism,” in Nabokov and the Novel, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 158-71.

[In the following essay, Pifer argues that frequent critical charges that Nabokov's novels represent the work of an aesthetic disposition devoid of human concern misrepresent the writer and his work.]

The shadows cast in Ada's “dark paradise” may begin, somewhat paradoxically, to clarify Nabokov's frequently misconstrued attitudes toward art and the artist. Certainly he grants to his talented narrator, Van Veen, the status of artist; Van raptly experiences states of “aesthetic bliss” and renders them in a verbal...

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Paul S. Bruss (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Problem of Text: Nabokov's Last Two Novels,” in Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work, edited by J. E. Rivers and Charles Nicol, University of Texas Press, 1982, pp. 296-307.

[In the following essay, Bruss examines the relation of the narrators to the texts they create in Nabokov's last novels.]

Nabokov's last two novels may not measure up to the achievement of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada, but both show the deft touch of an artist who knows the intricacy of his craft. The two novels are, to be sure, very different, for while the narrative strategy of Look at the Harlequins! has much in common with the...

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Slava Paperno and John V. Hagopian (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Official and Unofficial Responses to Nabokov in the Soviet Union,” in The Achievements of Vladimir Nabokov: Essay Studies, Reminiscences, and Stories from The Cornell Nabokov Festival,, edited by George Gibian and Steven Jan Parker, Center for International Studies, Committee on Soviet Studies, Cornell University, 1984, pp. 99-117.

[In the following essay, Paperno and Hagopian detail the treatment of Nabokov's work in the Soviet Union.]

It is perhaps not entirely whimsical to observe that cultural phenomena in the Soviet Union may be divided into three periods: before Stalin, under Stalin, and after Stalin. Concomitantly, Soviet responses to Nabokov may be...

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J. P. Shute (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov and Freud: The Play of Power,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 637-50.

[In the following essay, Shute analyzes Nabokov's aversion to Freud.]

“All My Books Should Be Stamped Freudians, Keep Out,” wrote Nabokov in 1963,1 and his fiction—as well as his letters, interviews, and essays—bears witness to this sustained struggle against the “Viennese Quack.” From an early glimpse in Bend Sinister [hereafter abbreviated as BS] of “Dr. S. Freud's face and signature” floating at the bottom of the toilet bowl (BS, p. 85) to the baroque refractions of that same image in Ada,...

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Danilo Kiš (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov, or Nostalgia,” in Partisan Review, translated by Ralph Manheim, Vol. LXII, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 378-82.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Kiš pays tribute to Nabokov for writing novels dedicated to literary play rather than social commentary.]

Until the scandalous Lolita and its scandalously wretched film version, Nabokov was virtually unknown outside Russian émigré circles and a narrow set of devotees. In that period of great upheavals, neither critics nor readers expected much from this magnificent talánt (in Russian, accent on the second syllable), while mediocre writers, floodlit against the literary...

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Paul B. Morgan (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov and the Medieval Hunt Allegory,” in Revue De Littérature Comparée, Vol. LX, No. 3, July-September, 1986, pp. 321-27.

[In the following essay, Morgan argues that there is “a series of deliberate analogies between” Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and the French courtly stag-hunt poetry of the thirteenth century.]

Vladimir Nabokov's allusive use of literary conventions has been long remarked upon; his novels teem with ironic references to nineteenth and twentieth century models. This aspect of his work has been perhaps too much stressed by critics wishing to demonstrate how Nabokov has re-vitalised the novel by re-working its...

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Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Conspicuous Construction; or, Kristeva Nabokov, and The Anti-Realist Critique,” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 21, Nos. 2 & 3, Winter-Spring, 1988, pp. 330-39.

[In the following essay, Ermarth examines the tension between reflexive and representational language in Nabokov's fiction and in the theories of Julia Kristeva, the French philosopher of language.]

The conflict between realists and anti-realists re-enacts a powerful cultural habit of dualistic formulation. No sooner do we stop assuming representational values, a state aggravated, no doubt, by reading realistic novels, than we proceed to find reflexiveness everywhere; and, whether the...

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John Burt Foster Jr. (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov Before Proust: The Paradox of Anticipatory Memory,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 78-94.

[In the following essay, Foster defines the importance of “anticipatory memory” in Nabokov's early Russian novels, the ones written before he became familiar with the Proustian practice of involuntary memory.]

In contrast to his dismissal of certain modern classics, most notably Dostoevskij, Freud, and T. S. Eliot, Nabokov clearly admired Marcel Proust. He named him alongside Joyce, Kafka, and Andrej Belyj as a master of twentieth-century fiction (Strong Opinions, 57), and at Cornell he would regularly teach...

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Leona Toker (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “King, Queen, Knave, or Lust Under the Linden,” in Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures, Cornell University Press, 1989, pp. 47-66.

[In the following essay, Toker compares the plot, characters, and situations in the Russian and English versions of King, Queen, Knave.]

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1

Nabokov's second novel, King, Queen, Knave (Korol', dama, valet, 1928) [hereafter...

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Brandon S. Centerwall (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hiding in Plain Sight: Nabokov and Pedophilia,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 468-84.

[In the following essay, Centerwall argues that Nabokov sublimated his own unacted-upon pedophilia in the composition of Lolita.]

It is thirty years since Lolita hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, an opportune moment to consider that most heretical of questions, was Vladimir Nabokov a closet pedophile? Heretical, because it is an article of faith among Nabokovians, carefully nurtured by the Master himself, that he was most assuredly not a pedophile, closet or otherwise. Popular dogma...

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Robert Alter (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov and Memory,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 620-29.

[In the following essay, Alter examines the intersection of past and present, of actual memory and reconstructed scenes in Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory.]

In Nabokov's notoriously restricted private canon of great twentieth-century novelists—he admitted only Proust, Joyce, Kafka, and Biely—it is Proust who often seems most intimately allied with his own aims and sensibility. A pursuit of time past is undertaken directly or obliquely in many of his novels, and most centrally in what are probably his two finest books—Lolita and Speak, Memory. The...

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Nora Buhks (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov and Dostoevskii: Aesthetic Demystification,” translated by Arnold McMillin, in Russian Writers on Russian Writers, edited by Faith Wigzell, Berg Publishers, 1994, pp. 131-37.

[In the following essay, Buhks discusses Nabokov's ambivalent critique of Dostoevski.]

Nabokov's characterisation of Dostoevskii was both harsh and eccentric. With unwavering insistence throughout his whole life—in correspondence, conversation, interviews, lectures and in his own novels (Despair, The Gift and Look at the Harlequins!)—Nabokov called Dostoevskii ‘a mediocre writer of mystery stories’.1 The shockingness of this judgement...

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Jane Grayson (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The French Connection: Nabokov and Alfred de Musset, Ideas and Practices of Translation,” in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 613-47.

[In the following essay, Grayson discusses the importance of Nabokov's work as a translator to the development of his work as a novelist.]

Où tu vas, j'y serai toujours,
Jusques au dernier de tes jours,
Où j'irai m'asseoir sur ta pierre.(1)

The focus of attention here is Nabokov's translation of Alfred de Musset's dramatic lyric, La Nuit de décembre. The specific instance of an early poetic translation is taken as a starting point for an account of Nabokov's...

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Douglas Anderson (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov's Genocidal and Nuclear Holocausts in Lolita,” in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 73-89.

[In the following essay, Anderson argues that in Lolita Nabokov alludes to the Nazi holocaust and to the potential nuclear holocaust.]

Particularly since the end of World War II and the development of cultural studies as a critical discipline, the integration of fictional and historical work has become second nature to scholars of American literature. In the opening chapters of The Machine in the Garden (1964), for example, Leo Marx conjoins Shakespeare's The Tempest, Robert Beverly's History of the Present State of...

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Steven Bruhm (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Queer, Queer Vladimir,” in American Imago, Vol. 53, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 281-306.

[In the following essay, Bruhm analyzes the function of Charles Kinbote's homosexuality in Pale Fire.]

When the BBC asked Vladimir Nabokov in 1968 what authors had influenced him most, he responded, “I'd much prefer to speak of the modern books I hate on first sight: the earnest case histories of minority groups, the sorrows of homosexuals, the anti-American Sovietnam sermon …” (Nabokov 1973, 116). With an uncharacteristic flourish of generalizing, Nabokov groups together what had by then become a familiar coupling of Cold-War villains: minorities, homosexuals, and...

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Thomas Seifrid (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov's Poetics of Vision, or, What Anna Karenina Is Doing in Kamera obskura,” in Nabokov Studies, Vol. 3, 1996, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Seifrid argues that visual and thematic elements in Nabokov's fiction correspond to passages in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.]

“A mysl' liubit zanavesku i kameru obskuru.”

Dar (383)

“But thought likes curtains and the camera obscura.”

The Gift (338)

Unlike Dostoevsky (“old Dusty,” with his “dusty-and-dusky” ways, as the hero of...

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John Burt Foster Jr. (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reading Nabokov with Jameson: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Intertextual Litmus Test,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 201-13.

[In the following essay, Foster discusses Nabokov's place on the modernist/postmodernist continuum.]


The Library of America's recent publication of Vladimir Nabokov's novels in English prompts reflection on his cultural affiliations.1 For although the new venue places this Russian-born novelist with American classics like Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, and Faulkner, Nabokov has often been neglected by American literature anthologies. Thus the Norton has...

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Donald Lyons (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov in America,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 16, No. 4, December, 1997, pp. 1–13.

[In the following essay, Lyons surveys Nabokov's American novels.]

The Library of America's recent publication of the American writings of Vladimir Nabokov in three volumes gives occasion for some thoughts about the nature of the writer's achievement. The first volume, called Novels and Memoirs 1941-1951, contains The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Bend Sinister (1947), and Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1951, revised 1966). The second, called Novels 1955-1962, contains Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957),...

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Brian Boyd (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shade and Shape in Pale Fire,” in Nabokov Studies, Vol. 4, 1997, pp. 173-224.

[In the following essay, Boyd pursues the problem of internal authorship in Pale Fire.]

… which, I hope, sufficiently approximates the text, or is at least faithful to its spirit

Pale Fire, Note to Lines 39-40

For those who have been following the story so far: this will not lead where you expect.


The longest-running and the fiercest disagreement in the interpretation of any of...

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Renate Lachmann (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Myth or Parody: The Play of the Letter in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading,” in Memory and Literature: Intertexuality in Russian Modernism, translated by Roy Sellars and Anthony Wall, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 283-97.

[In the following essay, Lachmann analyzes the signification of “alphabet games” in Invitation to a Beheading.]

L'être est une Grammaire; et le monde de part en part un cryptogramme à constituer et à reconstituer par inscription ou déchiffrement poétique.

—Jacques Derrida1

In Vladimir Nabokov's novels, the main question...

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Simon Stow (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Return of Charles Kinbote: Nabokov on Rorty,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, April, 1999, pp. 65-77.

[In the following criticism of philosopher Richard Rorty's reading of Nabokov, Stow argues Rorty is, himself, a Nabokovian type.]

In 1996, Vladimir Nabokov, an author who continually claimed that a “work of art has no value whatsoever to society,”1 paradoxically found himself at the center of a debate between Alexander Nehamas and Richard Rorty over the proper “political” interpretation of Pale Fire.2 The background to this dispute—which also involved such luminaries as Martha Nussbaum and Richard...

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Brenda Maddox (review date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Women Behind the Wheel,” in Literary Review, July, 1999, p. 456

[In the following review of Stacy Schiff's biography of Vera Nabokov, Maddox outlines the relationship between the Nabokovs, and its significance for Nabokov's career as a writer.]

When considering the wives of twentieth-century artists, the line between muse and typist can be hard to find. Ditto chauffeur. Vladimir Nabokov could neither drive nor type, nor remember a telephone number. His beautiful, clever, capable, devoted Véra did it all for him and gave his lectures, too, when he was indisposed. She helped him chase, catch and classify butterflies. She shared his long exile, as he...

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Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fantasy, Folklore, and Finite Numbers in Nabokov's ‘A Nursery Tale,’” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 511-29.

[In the following essay, Sweeney discusses the role of fairy tale elements in Nabokov's “A Nursery Tale.”]

Like most of Vladimir Nabokov's works, the short story “Skazka” concerns the poignant gap between desire and reality, and the perils of trying to surmount it. Nabokov wrote this tale fairly quickly “in Berlin in late May or early June 1926”—the same setting as the story itself—and it appeared in the Berlin emigré journal Rul' only a few weeks afterward. Almost fifty years later,...

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J. Morris (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Gliding Eye: Nabokov's Marvelous Terror,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter, 1999, pp. 162-74.

[In the following essay, Morris explores Nabokov's technique of using the play of consciousness as the narrative voice.]

Vladimir Nabokov, according to a reliable source present at his bedside, was chronically unable to fall asleep, or to sleep through the night. “I suffocate in uninterrupted, unbearable darkness,” goes an early poem. “The marvelous terror of consciousness rocks my soul in emptiness.”

The affliction was often worth enduring. It helped engender seventeen novels, including such triumphs as The...

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Julian W. Connolly (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nabokov's (Re)visions of Dostoevsky,” in Nabokov and His Fiction: New Perspectives, edited by Julian W. Connolly, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 141-57.

[In the following essay, Connolly examines Nabokov's variations of Dostoevskian themes in his fiction.]

A writer's relationship to the literary legacy of the past finds expression in a multitude of forms. Theoretical works by Yury Tynianov, Harold Bloom, and Gérard Genette, among others, have outlined some of the ways in which writers may articulate their attitudes toward the work of their predecessors. Vladimir Nabokov's attitude toward writers of the past was itself multi-faceted. When examining...

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Ellen Pifer (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Her Monster, His Nymphet: Nabokov and Mary Shelley,” in Nabokov and His Fiction: New Perspectives, edited by Julian W. Connolly, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 158-76.

[In the following essay, Pifer argues that in Lolita Nabokov reworked fundamental themes found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.]

Knowledge of Nabokov's privileged background has tended to confirm, for many readers over the past half-century, their wary impression of his fiction: that it is crafted by a “virtuoso stylist” coolly presiding over his universe and serenely, even cruelly indifferent to the plight of his characters.1 To this familiar stereotype has been...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Juliar, Michael. Vladimir Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986, 780 p.

A comprehensive descriptive listing of Nabokov's publication in books and periodicals in Russian, English, and French, and in translation into other languages.

Schuman, Samuel. Vladimir Nabokov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1979, 214 p.

A thorough compendium up to publication date of critical writing about Nabokov, not obsolete, but limited because of the vast amount which continues to be written.


Boyd, Brian....

(The entire section is 505 words.)